What kind of research into a company should you do, besides scour the financial statements? You can learn a lot about a company or industry by asking some carefully chosen questions of carefully chosen people. Philip Fisher calls this practice "scuttlebutt" and advocated it in Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits, his 1958 masterpiece:

"Most people, particularly if they feel sure there is no danger of their being quoted, like to talk about the field of work in which they are engaged and will talk rather freely about their competitors. Go to five companies in an industry, ask each of them intelligent questions about the points of strength and weakness of the other four, and nine times out of 10 a surprisingly detailed and accurate picture of all five will emerge."

(Read Whitney Tilson and Bill Mann for more on the art of scuttlebutt. They can teach you a lot.)

Imagine you're thinking about investing in Ethan Allen Interiors (NYSE:ETH). Everything might look good on paper, but you should still check out the scuttlebutt. If you're in an investment club, you can work in teams to gather information. Give Ethan Allen's investor-relations department a jingle and ask some questions. Find out who the company's top competitors are. Then call them. You might even track down a furniture trade association and see what information it can provide.

Computers are bringing scuttlebutt to your desktop. Head to Google, for example, and you can call up some wonderful resources, such as trade journals, trade associations, websites, and articles, all focused on the industry you're researching. Google News is especially handy in this regard. At websites such as Fool.com, you'll find individual discussion boards for thousands of companies like Ethan Allen. There you can share intelligence with other scuttlebutters. (Here's our Ethan Allen discussion board.)

Those who live near an Ethan Allen factory might visit it late at night and on the weekend, to count cars in the parking lot and see whether workers are putting in overtime. These self-appointed investigators might report on discussions with local employees and suppliers. You and others across the country can don your own trench coats and visit retail outlets to see how many customers are placing orders and how successful the product mix appears to be. You can interview store workers, too. Assembled together, this information should be quite revealing.

By mixing a careful reading of financial statements and scuttlebutt gathered from a variety of sources, you'll have a much better chance of beating the market. Keep up with scuttlebutt even after you buy shares of a company.

And by the way, if thinking about investing makes your head hurt and you'd like an actual person (a financial pro, no less) to talk to about your financial situation, look into our TMF Money Advisor. It's a valuable service that features customized independent advice from a variety of objective financial experts. You need to make sure you're saving enough, and doing so well enough, to meet all your needs. If you need some help doing that, Money Advisor can help. Or if you'd like to take savings matters into your own hands, visit our Savings Center.